How to Use Hidden City and Throwaway Ticketing to Save Money on Airfare

Airlines often price tickets from one city to another through a hub cheaper than flights that terminate at the hub. That’s because there may be more competition between the two cities that are cheaper. And this presents an opportunity called “hidden city ticketing” — you buy the flight to the cheaper destination, connecting where you really want to go, and just get off the plane at your ‘true’ arrival point. (Throwing away the final segment, throwaway ticketing.)

For those who think I’m somehow breaking secret ground here, the post was actually inspired by a recent useful thread on Milepoint and even further I’d note that Nate Silver wrote this up in some detail in the New York Times back in May.

Here’s Silver’s explanation:

Passengers flying to or from airports that are dominated by a single carrier — like Memphis, Newark or Dallas/Fort Worth — pay fares 20 or 30 percent higher than at non-hub airports. The prices are even more inflated when you’re flying from a smaller city with a limited number of flights. A nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth is $375 on American Airlines, for example — more than the $335 Delta will charge you to fly from Miami to Anchorage.

But what happens when you’re interested in flying American from Des Moines to Los Angeles, which hosts a more competitive airport? That flight is only about half the price ($186), despite its being more than double the distance. Now, here’s the trick: American flights from Des Moines to L.A. have a layover in Dallas. If you want to travel to Dallas, the best way to get a reasonable fare is to book the flight to Los Angeles instead, and simply get off the plane at Dallas.

An airline doesn’t see themselves as selling you a ticket from A to B to C, with you buying flights A to B and B to C. Instead, they see themselves as selling a ticket between A and C, and you happen to stop in B. A ticket from A to B is a totally different product.

Makes sense to people that they’ve bought two flights, they only take one, what’s the big deal since the airline got paid for both? Airlines see you obtaining a different – and likely more expensive – product than the one you paid for.

But it certainly isn’t illegal to buy a ticket and not fly all of the segments (although Silver recommends not actually lying about what you’re doing if caught since that could technically introduce a fraud element).

The practice violates the contract of carriage of most airlines (not Southwest, and up until a few years ago tossing the return portion of a trip and flying only one way wasn’t a violation of United’s but that’s been updated). And a travel agent who consistently sells tickets where final segments are unflown can get a debit memo and owe money, which they need to pay in order to continue selling tickets on the airline (and indeed not to jeopardize their access to the computer reservation system itself). But that’s a contractual and ongoing business issue between airline, reservation system, and agent..

The most that can happen to a passenger is likely that they could theoretically be banned from an airline. Most people don’t care because they aren’t loyal to an airline to begin with. The customer more likely could see consequences to their mileage account. This is something that could happen through repeated and frequent use of the technique, including your mileage number in the reservation. If you consistently buy one-way tickets through Chicago to Milwaukee and get off in Chicago (Milwaukee is often a much cheaper market), and give your United Mileage Plus number each time you do it, United might have a problem with you. United might send you a warning letter. They might threaten your miles. They could even close your account.

On the other hand, they’ll have a more difficult time penalizing your miles if you credit to partner airline programs. It will even be harder, though not impossible, to track. I don’t advise doing this every week. But I’ve never personally known anyone that’s done it only a few times a year per airline to have problems.

Here are some examples of how it works:

  • Flying New York to Denver, the price is $600 roundtrip for non-stop flights. You might be able to connect less expensively, but you want the non-stop. So you book Newark- Denver – Hayden, Colorado and get off the plane in Denver. That ticket might be $150 one-way.

    Then for the return you fly Denver to Newark and connect down to Jacksonville, Florida or Atlanta or maybe Orlando. You get off the plane in Newark. That ticket might be $150 one-way.

    You’ve now spent $270 for your roundtrip instead of $600 and still fly non-stops. Instead of crediting the miles to Continental, if you’re finding yourself doing this frequently, you credit the miles to US Airways.

  • Last minute tickets up to New York from DC are pricing expensively. A same-day roundtrip runs you $700! So instead you book Washington National to JFK on Delta and connect up to Boston. That one way runs $200. Get off the plane at JFK.

    Then for the return you book the US Airways Shuttle. But the one-way ticket on the Shuttle is running $400. So you book New York LaGuardia to Washington National and on down to Orlando. Get off at National and spend only $180.

    You’re out of picket $380 instead of $700, and still get non-stops to and from New York. You’ve flown into JFK instead of LaGuardia, but you’ll live…

Here’s how I would go about finding these routes. I search one-way using either the ITA Software Matrix or Hipmunk. I specifying my real starting city, and then I let the system find fares to a variety of cities that I know to be generally cheap, and might connect through the city I actually want to go to. And I tell the website to search for other airports within 300 miles of the one I’ve specified too, why not?

And I limit the search by specifying my connecting point as the city I want to go to.

Cheap cities might be Providence, Atlanta (as a connection, not on Delta), Orlando, Jacksonville (Florida), the various cities in Colorado that aren’t Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Milwaukee, etc. Depending on whet’s in the same general region of the country as where you’re actually going (and sometimes connecting through the Northeast to Florida works great, actually).

So a search could look like:

  • From Denver
  • Connecting at Washington Dulles
  • To Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, Providence, Charlotte, New York LGA, Pittsburgh (and everything within 300 miles)

That might spit out a cheapest one-way ticket Denver – Washington Dulles – Atlanta. And you get off at Dulles.

There are several words of caution, things you cannot do or risks to be aware of:

  • Do this only as the last segment of a reservation. So only throw away the final leg of a roundtrip. Or book two one-ways if you want to do a throw away in each direction. Because when you miss a flight, the airline is likely to cancel the rest of your itinerary.

  • Don’t’ check luggage. Most airlines used to let you ‘short check’ baggage, or check it to an intermediate stop and not your final destination. This isn’t usually allowed any longer. United certainly stopped permitted the practice a couple of years ago. If you check bags, your bags will go to the final city in your ticket, you will not. So this only works with carry ons (except for international flights arriving in the U.S. and a few other countries, because you have to pick up your bags on arrival in the U.S. and walk them through customs, then drop them back off. If you’re checked to a domestic destination other than the one you arrive at in the U.S., you can just not drop your bags back off. So if your final destination is your arrival city, you can terminate there. There’s only one exception that I can think of where connecting passengers pick up baggage in a different place from terminating passengers and are expected to re-check and then go through security. But that’s exceptionally rare.)

  • Don’t let yourself gate check luggage. For the same reason you don’t want to check a bag, you don’t want to board the plane and find no overhead space and a flight attendant telling you they’ll check your bag to your final destination. That’s not okay, since you aren’t going to your final destination. This works best if you have status or an upgrade, or at least can board in the middle of the pack and not be the last to board. But if you are last to board, there’s no overhead space, and they won’t let you hunt and peck for space, then you need an excuse why you either need to get the carryon on the plane or you need them only to check it to your intermediate destination. In the former case, tell them you’re connecting on a separate ticket to a carrier they’ve never heard of. In the latter, just tell them your final destination is where the aircraft is landing. And they’re more likely to check it to your planned arrival city rather than your reservation’s final destination.

  • There’s still a risk of irregular operations. If your flight cancels, the airline might offer to send you to your ‘final destination’ via some other route. That obviously won’t work for you. I’d suggest saying that the connecting city is important, you’re meeting folks in the airline’s club lounge there. Add some color, maybe you’re having an affair there (and only need a 45 minute connection in one fo the conference rooms?). Agents are usually pretty accommodating during irregular operations and will give you an itinerary that works for you if anything is available that suits you. But you’ll need to be proactive about the rebooking.

So how can our example of flying Denver – Washington Dulles – Atlanta go wrong?

United’s Denver – DC flight is delayed. They won’t let you checkin online because the delay means you no longer have a legal connection in DC. They want to re-route you. They’re happy to put you on the non-stop to Atlanta!

You: Umm, I really need to keep the same routing, I am meeting someone and delivering papers in DC. Can’t you get me on a later Denver – DC flight?

Agent: We could but there’s no way to get you to Atlanta then until the next day. I can’t give you that because you’ll have to spend the night, and we can’t pay for the hotel when the delay is due to weather.

You: Oh, I can overnight at my own expense. It’s fine for you to document the weather. I’m actually really scared of the aircraft that flies non-stop to Atlanta, and I can stay with the friend that I’m delivering documents to anyway.

Agent: Oh wait, there actually is a later flight that day I’ll put you in it and you’ll get into Atlanta late at night. (Indian call center agent actually puts you on the late flight the enxt day but you don’t complain to United about the poor service and how they got you stuck in DC, since you didn’t plan to fly to Atlanta anyway…)

By the way for the United folks who read this blog, this is an entirely made up scenario. If you pull up my account or ticketing history you’ll see that I’ve never actually flown (and not flown) these flights. It could have been any other carrier and any other made up route.

Ninety percent of the time though this comes off without a hitch and you get real savings. It’s a technique for the bag of tricks, one of many.

Related to hidden city ticketing is throwaway ticket, traditionally though of not as just throwing away the last leg of an itinerary but booking a roundtrip instead of a one-way ticket and not using the return.

It’s very rare in the U.S. that this saves you money anymore.. A large chunk of fares are one-way these days anyway, and those that aren’t rarely price a one-way at much more than half a roundtrip cost, and certainly not more than a roundtrip cost.

Europe though is a different beast entirely. European flag carriers often price one-ways automatically as full fare, so a London – Frankfurt one-way might be over $700 but a London – Frankfurt roundtrip taking the exact same outbound flight could be $250. Whenever I need to buy intra-European one-way tickets I always compare the one-way price to roundtrip. This is sometimes the case in Asia as well, and especially with European carriers flying tag flights, short hops between Asian destinations.

Have you done throwaway ticketing? What routes work out best for you? Have you ever gotten heat from an airline over the practice? I’d appreciate your experiences.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary thank you for posting this, without having to resort to some cryptic language, and even without any mention of Chase or Amex 🙂

    This crossed my mind recently in that I was having to book a last minute trip YVR-JFK for a meeting. I was thinking I’d take the Cathay flight out as it’s a red eye and then come back in the afternoon on AC or AA. Couple of things stood out. The round-trip on Cathay was $650, whereas they wanted $930 one way. So I was going to take the round-trip. However I needed to get back to YVR earlier than the 1am next day the CX flight arrives. So I checked out AA and lo and behold it was like $300 via DFW. And that got me thinking… LGA-DFW is as expensive as hell. AA have had a monopoly on that route for so long (thank goodness Delta is now in the mix) but it was pretty obvious this was my first accidental foray into hidden city ticketing. Next time I need to do the LGA-DFW route at short notice, I know what to do. For example just randomly plugging in LGA-DFW for next Tuesday, the cheapest on AA is > $1k. Whereas LGA-YVR is $487 all connecting in DFW. That is quite a saving!

  2. Gary, your recent posts have been VERY educational and useful. You keep this up and I may start using your cc links:-) I am going to make a conscious effort to use a blogger’s cc links from whom I learn the most useful and helpful info, it seems the most fair way to go about it!

    By the way, love the 45 minute quickie excuse in the lounge conference room, lol!

  3. I do the trowaway ticket in Europe all the time. BA is good withone way. With most *A and ST members I use a return ticket that I throw away or with LH route it to end in FRA. Cut my flight from MUC-BRU from $800 to $300.

  4. Great info indeed. I will have to consider this. I dont fully understand the part about rewarding another airline though. Please explain one more time.

    I also agree with several others I spoke to. There has been too much talk about credit cards and referral links. Becoming very tiresome. Glad this post had nothing about credit cards! Ty!

  5. Extremely helpful post about something that’s mentioned frequently but rarely explained in such depth.

  6. I have only used this method once about 7 1/2 years ago. I needed to fly one way from DCA-TYS, as I was buying a car and driving it back. The one way price was about $800, but a roundtrip was $150 on a last minute weekend fare. So my plan was to fly down on Friday and drive back Sunday.

    Before I flew on Friday, I got a call from the airline letting me know that the Sunday return was cancelled and that I had the choice of rebooking either Sunday morning or Monday morning. I let them know that neither of those flights worked for me and asked if they could refund that portion of the ticket. They did it with no problem and without questioning.

    So at the end, my $800 one way ticket ended up costing me about $75!

  7. I needed a last minute MR in Dec to hit UA 1P. LAX-JFK was > $500. So I tried Carlsbad (CLD)-JFK which priced at $310 all-in (I live < 10 mins from CLD), and I used a $50 UA voucher to get the cost down to $260 all-in.

    Not outstanding CPM, but it provided a 24hr door-to-door MR that I desperately needed and was short of time due to work commitments (left Sun 1pm, back Mon 1pm).

    Even better, such a crazy MR (in the eyes of my wife and family staying with us at the time) triggered much discussion (in my absence) to the degree that I am closing in on "hero" status within the "outlaws" community. Another 1-2 MR's and I'll be there 🙂

    A good place to be 🙂 – with airline status to boot!

  8. One way tickets from LGA to DFW are over $1,000 (direct)! However, a one way ticket from LGA to Austin or San Antonio with a layover is about $150 🙂

    On American, there are no direct flights to those two destinations, so in the case of a cancelled flight, you do not need to worry about them putting you on the direct route, and the other layover option is in Chicago which is clearly out of the way.

  9. I’ve done this often, say SFO-IAD-SFO but back to MOD (Modesto, where IS that actually) on the return. Often, it’ll take a 600$ transcon down to about 350$, of course I just don’t get on the SFO-MOD leg. Sometimes even to Carmel will work. I’ve also booked SFO-IAD to Harrisburg MDT. If I do a 1-way, it can usually lower the price 100-200$. Have never had a problem crediting to my AOC.

  10. I found this out with a trip within Europe this past year. RT was close to half of a OW ticket on Czech Air from AMS-PRG. I flew the first leg with my Delta number clearly displayed on my ticket and threw away the second leg. I never got my miles credited, but I chose not to complain/ask for them.

  11. its happening right now. trying to book o/w ticket lax to DFW – that prices at $439. Same flight, but add a return (now r/t) goes down to $198 !! silly…

  12. Very helpful tips! I just tried it out because I needed a one-way ticket from LGA to Detroit. It would cost me $614 to book this on Delta, but a one-way on Delta from LGA to Chicago connecting THROUGH Detroit was only $105! Score!!

  13. One of my favorites is CLE-JFK, which is $564 right now for mid-February travel one-way, while CLE-JFK-BWI is $81 (both on Delta). Rather than use your technique (use city pairs that are cheap destinations and see what connections come up) I find using the multi-city search on Kayak to be easier. I use my real departure, and my real destination as stop #1, and then start playing with stop #2 to see what yields the lowest airfare.

  14. @bangkokiscool all i’m essentially doing is the same thing although with a power search — i specify the connecting city and then search a ton of destinations and others within 300 miles in a single search

  15. Used a throwaway ticket once a couple of years ago on NW. Needed to fly the nonstop SMF-MSP one way but the roundtrip was about $150 cheaper. Flew the outbound then canceled the return flight through the website and received a credit for the MSP-SMF leg that I could have used later if I paid a change fee.

  16. I do throwaway ticketing from time to time (about three times a year) and it usually will save me about $40 to $75. I’ve never had a problem or been told by an airline that I need to stop. I fly a lot between DC and Denver, just like in your example.

  17. Seems to me that usually you would be saving enough money to simply ship your luggage to your final destination via one of the many services that will do that for you.

  18. I’ve used this with great success, usually finding the options by accident when searching “nearby airports” for SFO or IAD: SFO will often pull MRY flights, and IAD will pull MDT. I’ve never had a problem.

  19. I needed a one-way recently from Heathrow to Houston. The one-way on Continental was pricing out at between $1,500 and $2,000. A round trip was under $1,000. I booked the round trip and made the return as far out as I could (November) just in case I have a use for it down the road.

  20. I used it on the way to the Chicago Seminar in October. Got off in ORD instead of continuing on to SFO.

  21. [QUOTE]But it certainly isn’t illegal to buy a ticket and not fly all of the segments…..

    The practice violates the contract of carriage of most airlines….. [/QUOTE]

    Of course, you might want to consider the moral ramifications.

  22. While the practice of using a hidden city violates the contract of carriage of most airlines, the following strategy is fully legal. Supposedly, I would like to visit Dallas for half a day from another city (e.g., New York). Round trip could be expensive if an airline has a monopoly for the route. Instead, I am buying a true mileage run LGA-DFW-LAX-XXX-LGA with departure from LGA in the evening and then midnight turn-around on the same plane in LAX. Next, I fly standby to DFW with the first morning flight (usually, no problem), spend the entire day in Dallas, and depart to LAX late night on a confirmed flight. The best case scenario – everything goes fine, I spend the whole day in Dallas and all upgrades clear. The worst case – I would complete an overnight mileage run!

  23. I did this many years ago.

    Booked ATL – ORD – IND one way on united (and got off in ORD)
    Booked MDW – ATL – FLL one way on airtran (and got off in ATL) Total cost was $138.

    The best part was on the return when I got to ATL the FLL gate was a total zoo. I realized the flight might be oversold so I asked the agent and volunteered to be bumped from the FLL flight. I was successfully bumped and received a free air-tran round-trip certificate and was re-booked in first class to FLL on the following day (which I did not take)

  24. Gary,

    What about doing this on reward flights? If one were to drop the last leg of an itinerary and that would have changed the redemption cost, do you think the airline would go back and take the extra points?

    For example, on a round-trip on a Continental points itinerary. Routing from Middle East to Central Asia through Europe, if I were to skip out on the last flight (Europe back to Middle East) how likely would they be to go back and charge me the higher total for one-way Europe to Central Asia?

    Any thoughts?

  25. This doesnt seem to always work, searching SFO to BOS with one stop at IAD returns no results but if you search united it does list one.

  26. I do this all the time flying throughout California. It costs a fortune to fly to San Fancisco to Arcata so I book round trip from LA to Arcata for half price. I get two boarding passes and actually “board” during the layover in San Francisco, where I live. Because it’s a separate boarding pass and plane, no one notices it. Flying home from Arcata, I deplane in San Francisco and never get on the last leg of the trip to LA. So I book roundtrip from LA to Arcata at half the cost from San Francisco to Arcata and never set foot in LA. Saves hundreds and I do carry on luggage. Also cheaper to fly Burbank to Portland and get out at San Francisco aiport during layover for destination city at half fare.

  27. I use “hidden city” all the time if I’m flying direct to a hub city. The savings are potentially enormous, and allow you to pick up essentially direct flights at desired times for far less than the same ticket priced direct. Even when compared against any tickets going out and coming back on those days (even using multiple carriers), it will often be a huge savings.

  28. Are there any issues with not using the return part of a round trip ticket while in Europe? I don’t want to have any issues at customs checkpoints when I tell them I will not be returning to Prage as my round trip ticket states….that I will instead be going directly from Romainia back to the united states.

  29. If I book a flight from Charlotte to Austin, TX with a stop in Atlanta (where I live), it’s a lot cheaper than flying right from Atlanta.

    Is there an issue with me doing this, but simply getting on in Atlanta instead of Charlotte, and then getting off in Atlanta on the way back instead of flying the remaining leg to Charlotte?

  30. So i was looking to buy a ticket from jfk to vienna, then from zurich back to jfk. I found an itinerary with kayak that saves me 200 bucks from jfk to moscow (that lays over in vienna) and then zurich to jfk. The first flight is with austrian air and the second is with swiss air. If i skip the vienna to moscow part will my zurich to jfk flight be canceled? They are two different airlines, so the question is, is it kayak or the airline company that cancels the remaining part of an itinerary. If its the airline I would assume it doesn’t matter? Or could I like, check in to the second flight but just not get on the plane? ha idk, thoughts? thanks!

  31. I’d like to try this to get to London for less than $800-. just tried on kayak from ny to paris or zurich but no connecting flights came up. can anyone suggest how I can do this? thanks.

  32. I did this once – my daughter was flying from Winnipeg to Minneapolis. One way ticket was ~$600. Booked a flight from Winnipeg to Fargo that had a plane change in Minneapolis. That was ~$300. Half price!

  33. Do you need to inform anyone that you will not be continuing on to the final destination? Will they have to hold the plane waiting for you to arrive which will delay the flight? I want to do this but don’t want to inconvenience the other passengers with the plane waiting on me to show up and then I don’t.

  34. I want to book a flight from LAX to MCO. What would be the best way to do this?

    I also need to book flight from LAX to San Juan.

  35. I live in Detroit, a 3.5 hour drive from Toronto and a $95 flight from Chicago. I found a great price to Bangkok from Toronto. The return portion has a 4 hour layover in Chicago before continuing to Toronto. I only have a carryon bag and was considering leaving my flight at the layover and hopping on the flight to Detroit from Chicago. I will be home at 6pm instead of an additional layover and 3.5 hour drive home. I want to know if I can get off the flight and go through immigration and customs at O’Hare? Any suggestions? thanks

  36. i’m very new to this and have little clue as to what i’m doing! Do you literally just try a bunch of random cities and hope that one of them is a “hidden city”? Is there an easy way to know what routes will have a layover in your destination city? Any help would be much appreciated! I”m trying to fly from Santa Ann (or nearby) to Gunninson, CO. Thanks!!

  37. We got an AMAZING RT deal to Abu Dhabi from DFW. We have a stop in Paris on the way there and a stop in Frankfurt, Germany on the way back. We’d be fine with skipping Abu Dhabi completely and just exploring Europe for a week, but it’s not looking like this method will work for us. I’d love to hear any suggestions that any more experienced travelers may have.

  38. I have done this a few times to Charlotte from PHL. I purchase a seat to BNA. I recently purchased a RT from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, it was less than a one way seat.

    More importantly- I don’t know who has seen information regarding https://skiplagged.com This person wrote a program that figures out the best routes. United it suing him. I think I saw Gary post about this. Today I saw another article 1600 people have donated to his legal fees against United. http://money.cnn.com/2014/12/31/news/companies/skiplagged-raises-money-united-lawsuit/index.html?hpt=hp_t4

    I think this person deserves the coverage and support.

    I never used or knew about his program before this week not do I have much of a requirement to find hidden cities. When prices are outrageous that is when I look.

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